By Toni G. Atkins
March is Women’s History Month, and I am thrilled to devote this column to celebrating the accomplishments of women in our community.
The centerpiece of our activities surrounding Women’s History Month will be recognition of Women of the Year in Senate and Assembly districts throughout California. My choice for Woman of the Year in the 39th Senate District is Charisma de los Reyes, a policy analyst for San Diego County who specializes in child sex trafficking.
Charisma was honored on March 4 in the capitol at a Woman of the Year luncheon and on the Senate floor. She’ll also be honored in San Diego at a special event on March 16, along with dozens of other amazing women who work every day to improve the quality of life in the San Diego region.
And each day in March, I will celebrate a different local woman or group of women (on Women Crush Wednesdays — #WCW) by posting about them on Twitter (twitter.com/SenToniAtkins) and Facebook (facebook.com/SDToni).
Throughout the month in the capitol, there will be receptions, special guests on the Senate floor and fun events (such as screening of “Captain Marvel,” starring a woman — Brie Larson!).
It’s all to recognize the impact that powerful, creative and brilliant women have had in the past and continue to have in the present. We honor the major achievements that have altered the course of history, but we also honor the unsung ways that women and girls make a difference in someone’s life that no one but the recipient will ever know about.
In my own life, I think about the small things my mother did to prepare me for the days to come, and the quiet way in which she led by example, through her work ethic and devotion to her family. I think about my sister and her service to her country in the U.S. Navy.
I think about my professional mentor Christine Kehoe and how she created a public-service template for me to follow throughout my career — in addition to how she blazed a trail in San Diego for women in the LGBTQ community who aspired to become leaders. I think about my colleagues in the Senate and the Assembly — what a diverse array of women from all walks of life coming together to solve California’s challenges and representing their communities.
I think about all the women — from young interns to seasoned professionals — who have worked on my staff throughout the years, in San Diego and Sacramento, spending countless hours, days, weeks, months and years helping me be the best representative and leader that I can be.
I think about all the women and girls in the communities that I represent: the volunteers, the activists and advocates, the community leaders, the small business owners, the teachers and health care professionals — everyone I encounter on a regular basis who cares so much about the world and people around them and turns that caring to action.
I’m glad March is finally here — happy Women’s History Month to all!
Growing Women’s Caucus advances priorities
Before the 2018 election, women made up 25 percent of the state Legislature. After the election, we now make up 30 percent. That’s a significant gain for a segment of the population that has been underrepresented in Sacramento throughout the state’s history.
The Senate lost two women in 2018 but added five: Senators Anna Caballero, Melissa Hurtado, Shannon Grove, Mari Elena Durazo and Susan Rubio. The Assembly also lost two women (one being Caballero) and added five: Buffy Wicks, Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, Christy Smith, Cottie Petrie-Norris and Tasha Boerner Horvath (from Encinitas).
This means the Legislative Women’s Caucus grew from 30 members to 36. We have a long way to go on the road to true proportional representation, but without a doubt, this was a big step forward.
In recent years, the Women’s Caucus has successfully advocated for many of its top priorities, such as equal pay, parental leave, repeal of the maximum grant for struggling families, expanded child care and sexual-harassment prevention. Last year, the governor signed Senate Bill 826, legislation I authored along with Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson that expands women’s participation on corporate boards.
This year, under the leadership of its chair, Sen. Connie Leyva, and vice chair, Assembly member Monique Limón, the Women’s Caucus will continue its determined and persistent advocacy, prioritizing access to affordable child care and equality in the workplace. We’ll also continue to support the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which is especially helpful to working single mothers.
It’s great to see Governor Gavin Newsom follow the Women’s Caucus lead and include funding in his draft budget for these priorities. We’re confident that he’ll be an excellent partner as we work through the budget and legislative process in 2019.
Charisma de los Reyes 2019 Woman of the Year
Charisma de los Reyes is a policy analyst and coordinator of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Program for San Diego County Child Welfare Services. What that means is she’s a warrior on the front lines of our region’s fight against sex trafficking and a fierce protector of some of our most vulnerable and traumatized children.
For this reason, Charisma de los Reyes is my choice for 2019 Woman of the Year in the 39th Senate District.
A first generation Filipino-American, Charisma is the oldest of three daughters born to parents who immigrated to the United States through her father’s service in the U.S. military. She was born in Hawaii in 1974 while her father was stationed there. After five years, the family was relocated to San Diego, and they have remained here ever since.
“We were one of those lucky military families that didn’t have to move a lot,” Charisma said.
Initially, her family lived in military housing near the 32nd Street Naval Base, and eventually, her parents bought a house in southeastern San Diego. Her mom and dad live in that house to this day. “Very proud to be from Southeast San Diego,” Charisma said.
Charisma attended Bell Junior High and Morse High School. She earned her bachelor’s degree in social work from Point Loma Nazarene University before becoming the first in her family to receive a master’s degree at the University of Southern California.
She laughs as she says Filipinos typically go into nursing, so her parents were taken aback by her desire for a career in social work.
“There’s always been a natural calling for me in working with folks and communities, and advocacy, empowerment,” she said. “That’s always been a part of my life.”
She is proud to follow her mother’s footsteps working for county government. Her mom served the people of San Diego County for nearly 30 years before retiring. For Charisma, it was initially supposed to be just a two-year stint to get experience after earning her degree.
“I just ended up falling in love [with the job] and really have made a career in working with child welfare and working in the prevention area,” she said, noting that she recently completed her 17th year at the county.
Charisma began her career with the county as a child support officer before becoming a social worker for Child Welfare Services. After about a decade working out in the field, honing her skills with victims of human trafficking, she was promoted to policy analyst. In this role, she coordinates the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Program and acts as a liaison between county and state governments; I have personally benefited from her knowledge of the issues surrounding child sex trafficking.
She points out that her work with children is not “linear.” It is often “heartbreaking” and “messy,” she said. She prefers to think of what she and others do as working alongside the children, rather than rescuing them. It’s a collaborative process, one that doesn’t happen overnight. “The most sustainable change is when it comes from within,” she said.
Much like people who are kidnapped or survivors of domestic violence, victims of sex trafficking can suffer from Stockholm syndrome, which refers to the phenomenon of victims relating in a positive way to their abusers.
“Regardless of when they may be ready, you have to be there,” she said. “You have to show up every single time. And you plant the seeds. You never know when the seed is going to take.”
What does Charisma want people to understand about her work? Children are incredibly resilient, she said. They endure “horrific” abuse, but they have an extraordinary capacity to recover and thrive. It just takes the right support that is individualized, culturally responsive and respectful. And it requires someone to believe in them.
How can people help? Become educated and aware of the realities of human trafficking, she says. And avoid judgment. Social workers have long understood that children who are trafficked as prostitutes are victims, not criminals. Thankfully, state law has caught up.
Charisma said we must continue to address the demand for the sex trade. San Diego has a promising program in place to reduce recidivism among men who buy sex, where they are introduced firsthand to those who have been victimized by this trade. She’d like to see the program duplicated in other places.
And we must continue to educate children with age-appropriate lessons, not only on the realities of human trafficking, but perhaps more importantly on dangerous gender dynamics. “The younger we can get, the better,” she said, “teaching about healthy and unhealthy relationships.”
Charisma says her work is “truly” her “purpose.” I am so grateful that she is able to do work every day that she loves. Because there are countless vulnerable children who are on the road to recovery thanks to her dedication.
I am proud to name Charisma de los Reyes 2019 Woman of the Year in the 39th District.
—Toni G. Atkins represents the 39th District in the California Senate. Follow her on Twitter @SenToniAtkins.